Homeward bound: Afghan refugees in a bind

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Pakistan’s ultimatum to Afghan refugees living on its soil to leave the country by March 31 or face deportation has evoked much apprehension among the latter. They are being forced back although the situation in Afghanistan is hardly conducive to their return.

According to the Global Peace Index, Afghanistan is the third least peaceful country in the world after Syria, and Iraq, where the overall security situation worsened “considerably” in 2016. “Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous, and most violent, crisis ridden countries in the world,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) observed in a recent report, pointing out that in 2016 Afghanistan saw “the highest number of civilian casualties on record.”

Forced Repatriation

It is into this alarmingly violent situation that millions of Afghan refugees are being pushed into. While the bulk of these refugees are from Pakistan, European Union countries too are forcing back an “unlimited” number under a controversial deal with the Afghan government in 2016 that links aid with repatriation.This forced repatriation is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

The principle of non-refoulement is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Signatories, including EU member states, are violating this principle by sending back refugees. Unlike them, Pakistan is not a signatory to either the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol. But under international customary law, Pakistan is obliged to not return people to persecution, torture or ill-treatment.

Although South Asian countries, with the exception of Afghanistan, have not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Treaty or the 1967 Protocol, they have not shirked their responsibilities to refugee populations. Pakistan has been a generous host to millions of Afghan refugees for almost four decades and India to around 10 million refuges from East Pakistan in 1970-72 and from Sri Lanka in the 1980s. No doubt, political and security considerations played a major role in prompting the ‘generosity;’ still, unlike Europe today, South Asia did not slam its doors on people fleeing war and violence.

Several factors underlie South Asia’s reluctance to sign the refugee instruments. For one, these were Eurocentric, structured to support Europe’s handling of refugee populations in the wake of World War II rather than those of South Asia; in fact, India and Pakistan were left to their own limited resources to look after Partition refugees. Importantly, South Asian states did not want the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) to be the supervising authority for refugee processing as this would undermine their sovereignty and also leave them vulnerable to the UNHCR’s pro-West (during the Cold War) politics. They preferred a bilateral approach and wanted freedom in deciding on refugees rather than being bound by multilateral treaties that did not reflect their concerns.

Although South Asian countries have hosted massive refugee populations, their policies towards refugees has been ad-hoc and arbitrary, even discriminatory. India has treated its Tibetan refugees exceedingly well, not so the Chin refugees from Myanmar.

Legal experts and human rights activists say that even if they do not want to sign on to the multi-lateral refugee treaties, South Asian governments must set up robust domestic legal refugee frameworks to rid their refugee policies of uncertainty and arbitrariness as refugees should not have to deal with sudden changes of heart and policy in a host government.

Change of Heart

Successive Pakistani governments hosted Afghan refugees for decades. A sizable number of those living in Pakistan today arrived in the early 1980s, soon after the Soviet invasion. It is likely that their value as a strategic tool prompted Pakistan to keep them hitherto.
But they are being asked to leave now. Deteriorating Afghan-Pakistani relations and Kabul’s growing proximity to India, especially on defense matters, is said to be behind Pakistan’s change of heart, culminating in the March 31 ultimatum to refugees.

India underwent a similar change of heart vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. In 1984, the refugees were warmly welcomed, even hailed by the public and government alike as freedom fighters. In 1991, when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber, the host Tamil population and the government in Tamil Nadu turned hostile to Sri Lankan Tamils. Refugees were nudged to go back home, even as the civil war was intensifying in the island.

Pakistan must rethink its decision to send back the Afghan refugees. Some need more time to wind up businesses they were running in Pakistan. Others see Pakistan as their home and have nothing and nobody to go back to in Afghanistan. As millions of refugees from Europe, Iran and Pakistan return to war-ravaged Afghanistan, a humanitarian crisis looms.

Sudha Ramachandran
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.
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